According to Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection system, which projects the performance of every player and team in Major League Baseball, there are 411 players designated as “outfielders”–this is, if you do some basic back-of-the-napkin math, obviously far more players than there are spots, but this incorporates tons of lifelong minor leaguers and players who aren’t really outfielders, and even some retired guys. The #1 outfielder, to the surprise of nobody, is Mike Trout, with other usual suspects such as Mookie Betts, Ronald Acuña Jr., and Juan Soto near the top, while the bottom of the list is filled with a bunch of guys you’ve probably never heard of unless they happened to win the 2007 Heisman Trophy.
It takes a little bit of scrolling to find your first St. Louis Cardinals outfielder, but you’ll get there eventually. The top guy, tied with five other outfielders for #43, is Harrison Bader, who it was announced earlier today would open the 2021 season on the Injured List and is expected to miss the first four weeks of the season. Tied for 49th is Tommy Edman, a player more often projected as the team’s Opening Day second baseman. The next three outfielders on the list are as follows:
- Dylan Carlson, #62–In 119 plate appearances, Carlson has a .252 on-base percentage and a wRC+ of 65, a mark that pitcher Adam Wainwright has exceeded in four different seasons in his career.
- Austin Dean, #153–In 318 plate appearances, Dean has been slightly better than Carlson, but not by much: he has a .274 on-base percentage with a 77 wRC+. Basically he had the same offensive production that Brendan Ryan, a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop, had in St. Louis before being run out of town. But for more context, Austin Dean is a Cardinal because the Miami Marlins of all teams wanted to shake him off the team’s 40-man roster.
- Tyler O’Neill, #154–In 450 plate appearances, O’Neill is actually the most accomplished of the trio by a fair margin. He does have 21 career home runs, but he also has a 34% career strikeout rate with just a 7.1% walk rate. Despite his power flourishes, his .291 OBP makes him a below-average hitter, with a 91 wRC+, in his career.
There are, of course, some caveats here. Carlson ranks as highly as he does because he is a widely-acclaimed prospect, and 119 plate appearances in a pandemic-influenced rookie season are even less worth drawing conclusions over than 119 plate appearances in a normal season. O’Neill is a defending Gold Glove winner in left field and he has shown competence and arguably excellence in center field. But these are the only three true outfielders aside from Harrison Bader who are projected to be above Replacement Level players in 2021, and they combine for just 1.8 WAR per ZiPS. The next guys up are Lane Thomas, who has decent numbers in his 84 MLB plate appearances but has gravitated around average in AAA in much larger sample sizes, and Justin Williams, who has seven career MLB plate appearances. After them, the Cardinals would be counting on the likes of Justin Toerner (regrettably, not the same as the Dodgers COVID third base guy) and Lars Nootbaar (an 80-grade name who is at least not yet an 80-grade prospect), or possibly trying to squeeze twenty-eight year-old first baseman John Nogowski into a new position.
This could be really bad. Like, astonishingly bad. A 1.8 WAR outfield would put the Cardinals comfortably in the bottom third of MLB outfields last season, a season in which, and I cannot stress this enough, teams played no more than sixty games. Of the 600 outfields trotted out by MLB teams in full seasons since 2000, this Cardinals outfield would be projected to be in the fifth percentile. An optimist can point out, and not incorrectly, that players like Carlson and O’Neill in particular have upside far beyond their projections. A pessimist could just as easily point out that they could be even worse.
The Cardinals’ confidence in their outfield has been baffling all off-season, even before the Harrison Bader news (it’s not as though Bader, a terrific fielder who often looks completely at sea against MLB breaking pitches, is a “safe” player anyway). The team had a subpar outfield already in 2020 and proceeded to give away Dexter Fowler to the Los Angeles Angels for nearly free–Fowler is a flawed player himself, but he has been a more demonstrably consistenet MLB hitter than any of the remaining Cardinals outfielders. The loss of Kolten Wong to the Milwaukee Brewers precludes the Cardinals from playing Tommy Edman in the outfield without sacrificing dramatically on the offensive (Edmundo Sosa) or defensive (Matt Carpenter) end. The team’s splashiest off-season acquisition by a mile, Nolan Arenado, is certainly a sufficient addition in terms of overall quality of player, but it arguably ignored the biggest problems with the roster’s current construction.
Matt Carpenter remains the elephant in the room, as the now-positionless veteran could play second base. And given the quality of the three entrenched defenders on the infield, this would be a worthy sacrifice if Matt Carpenter still hit like Matt Carpenter. Spring Training statistics should mostly be ignored, but to this point in 2021, Carpenter has a .033 batting average and a .283 OPS, and numbers that extreme are difficult to ignore. His performance in Spring has been so bad that I would be relatively inclined to give credence to the “they should just cut him” level of Carpenter cynic if not for the fact that, at this point, it’s not like he’s blocking a player I particularly want to see on the big-league roster.
The available outfielders in free agency are a very thin crop, but at this point, the Cardinals may not have much of an option. Ryan Braun is nominally the best available, but aside from whatever grievances fans may have with him personally, he is said to be leaning towards retirement. This leaves Yasiel Puig, a player the Cardinals have repeatedly avoided signing before he was coming off an entire season missed, and Josh Reddick, a player coming off three consecutive below-average offensive seasons who has become a defensive liability in recent seasons. And yet Josh Reddick also seems like a pretty tantalizing option at this point because the Cardinals basically know what he would be. If Bader comes back on time and plays well and Carlson and O’Neill play up to their perceived potential, Reddick can be a fourth outfielder. If one or more of these risky players ends up underperforming, Reddick can be a competent, if totally uninspiring, replacement.
That said, I don’t think the Cardinals are going to pursue Reddick, or Puig, or anybody else. The Cardinals seems reasonably confident in their outfield. I just have no idea why.